There’s nothing easy about friendship, though Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman surely make camaraderie seem as effortless as breathing. Between cohosting the wildly popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend, which finds the two connecting from opposite coasts, to being invoked as friendship experts in such publications as the Washington Post and the Guardian, Sow and Friedman have become interlinked both in public and outside of it. They met more than a decade ago in Washington, D.C., when both were in the tumult of transition—Friedman moving from California, where she’d been so comfortable in her environment but frustrated with her job, and Sow moving on from a job that felt unsatisfying—and the pair quickly bonded over a mutual love of Obsession and other bad movies and a shared interest in denim skirts.
Since then, as Friedman has returned to California and Sow has found her professional footing in New York, they’ve forged what they call a big friendship—one that has changed them both, made them interrogate their own behavior, and helped them become better friends not only to each other but to others as well. But no matter how long you’ve been friends, Sow and Friedman make it clear that sometimes, “deep, lasting friendships, like ours, need protection—and, sometimes, repair.” There’s a cost to being professional friends—two people who others label as “goals” or mimic in their own friendships—and Sow and Friedman’s best-selling book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, which was released on July 7, not only takes us on their friendship journey, including the many breakdowns that have occurred, but also helps us better situate friendship as one of the most significant relationships in our lives.
Though relationships with blood relatives and romantic relationships are treated with attention and care, friendship is supposed to be malleable, shaping itself around everything else happening in your life. But Sow and Friedman, with the help of many brilliant scholars, explain the investment we must make in our friendships in order for them to go from zero to a Golden Girls–esque bond and even detail how we can fix friendships when they’ve gone off the rails. In their interview with Glamour, Sow and Friedman cover everything from how to keep capitalism out of their relationship to the reasons we should celebrate friendship origin stories.
Glamour: The book opens with a trip you took to Napa, California, that was low-key an attempt to repair your broken friendship. Why did it feel necessary to begin there?
Aminatou Sow: That decision happened in the last draft of the book. We’d gotten this very consistent feedback that the first three chapters—people didn’t use the word boring, but that’s how we received it. We crave direct feedback, so we were really like, What is everyone trying to tell us? One of our readers told us that the thing she was missing was why should she care. Why should you care about the two of us in the beginning of the book?
We were really trying to arrive at the truth that friendship is work and that work is worthwhile.
We’re part of this conversation about friendships always being a celebration. We host Call Your Girlfriend and we’re known for being friends. It’s very cute, it’s true, and it’s nice, but we were really trying to arrive at the truth that friendship is work and that work is worthwhile. We wanted to shine a light on how friendship became work in our own relationship. So much of the public story of our friendship is that we’re good friends to each other, and it’s very effortless. It’s so important, particularly for women, to be honest about what is true in your life and what is not true. We both wanted to honor that place of saying people know us for being easy, breezy, good friends. But the truth is that we have a good relationship because our relationship is work.
Ann Friedman: Another motivating factor in putting some difficulty right up front is so readers could do that same thing. If you know up front that our friendship isn’t always perfect, then you’re looking for those cracks in a different way as opposed to just humming along and enjoying everything being perfect. We wanted to set that up for readers so that they can do what we’ve had to do in our friendship: examine even the parts that are really good and the memories that are really positive to say, What were we missing?
For those new to the concept, can you break down why you call your friendship a “big friendship” opposed to calling yourselves best friends, for instance, or using a different euphemism?
Aminatou: What became really apparent to us as we started writing this book is that there’s a real lack of vocabulary for how you navigate friendship, how you tell your friends that they’re important to you, and how you tell the world that someone is important to you. We have that language in family structures, and we definitely have that language in romantic structures.
How do you go from zero to Golden Girls? There’s not a guide for that. There’s just this expectation that friendship is easy, and so much of that is tied into the infantilizing language of friendship, like calling someone your bestie. As life has hummed along for us, the vocabulary just doesn’t exist for the women we are today. So in coining “big friendship,” we really wanted to acknowledge a kind of relationship that’s set apart from your acquaintances or from your nearly good friends. We wanted to talk about a kind of relationship that’s rooted in the future and has an expectation that you will hold each other through everything that life can throw your way.
“How did you meet?” tends to be a question reserved for couples, but you make it clear that friendship origin stories—and friendships in general—deserve to be prioritized in our lives. Why is it important to treat friendship origin stories with the same care we treat romance origin stories?
Ann: We ask about relationships we value. When someone asks me about the point at which I met someone, it’s also a commentary on how they’re receiving my friendship now. I also think there’s something a bit magical about meeting a friend—the kind of big friendship we’re writing about—where it has that same kind of sparkle or that spark feeling you might feel when you meet anyone who’s going to be an important part of your life. I feel excited just recalling how it felt to meet each other for the first time; it’s a powerful thing.
The other thing we realized in writing about our origin story is yes, it’s true that we liked each other off the bat, wanted to go see bad movies together, and liked each other’s style, but we also were both in this period of trying to figure out what the next phase of our adult lives would look like. There was something about each other that was like, I want some of this energy in the next phase of adulthood. It was deeper than just “I like your taste.”
Big Friendship is so well-researched. You not only take the reader on a journey of your friendship, but you contextualize it with interviews with scholars, like Stephanie Coontz, who has created foundational work about the ways we understand marriage and family. What was your approach to researching a book about friendship, given that there aren’t many scholars explicitly studying it?
Aminatou: It was so natural that there would be research in this book because we wrote this book in the same way that we talk to each other. And we’re two very curious, very nerdy people. When you’re trying to put a name to something that you’re feeling but can’t quite put your finger on, research becomes a way to question: Is this just me or is there a pattern here?
If we really centered friendship as an institution in our society, then there would be so much research about it.
It was really disappointing to look for things we thought would be very apparent about friendship and find that they weren’t there. We study things that we believe are really important, and if we really centered friendship as an institution in our society, then there would be so much research about it.
Though you grew up vastly different, there was a lot you had in common. You both organized protests nobody came to and volunteered in some way for Amnesty International. You were both avid readers and were both forward-thinking about your lives. Looking back, does it feel like kismet that you eventually became friends?
Ann: A little bit of that feeling still persists in as much as I feel really lucky that we ever crossed paths. But we also write in the book that we were set up by a mutual friend, Dayo, who I had been friends with for more than a year. Aminatou had just met her. And after Dayo had dinner with Aminatou, she was like, “You need to meet Ann immediately.” Right away Dayo instinctively knew we would get along really well, and she engineered a situation where we could meet each other. It wasn’t quite as clichéd as a blind date, but it was very intentional. In that sense, it wasn’t fate at all. It was a really perceptive and loving mutual friend who knew that we would be a good fit in each other’s lives. But that said, there’s a little sense of “Wow, I can’t believe this even happened.” Aren’t we so lucky?
One of the things I deeply appreciate about both of you is the way in which you talk candidly about negotiating salaries and asking for what you’re worth. You both say you’ve relied on the other for the support to demand a salary worthy of the responsibilities bestowed upon you. How has your friendship become a place where you can also discuss career advice? What’s the best lesson you’ve learned from each other in that regard?
Aminatou: I am such a firm believer that the most powerful thing two people can give each other is information. I really try to live my life by that, and I have been really lucky to be in community with people who also understand that. If you’re people like us who are generally thoughtful about the power structures that shape our world, you start to understand very quickly that the way that a lot of injustice prevails is because it’s hidden in darkness. All you have to do is bring it to light. So there’s nothing remarkable to me about sharing your salary information, sharing information about negotiating, or sharing information about topics we think are taboo. All that does is empower other people to realize that it’s okay to share. It has never felt risky to me. I have only ever seen the rewards of it.
Aminatou, you detail being chronically ill and the strains that put not only on your body but on your friendships. You write, “On a deeper level, asking for help is admitting vulnerability—not an easy thing for an extremely independent person.” I am also chronically ill, so this resonated deeply with me. How did your friendship with Ann stretch, as you call it, to accommodate the newfound realities of life in your body? Ann, what advice would you give someone whose friend is chronically ill?
Aminatou: For me, I had to realize I was holding so much shame about not feeling well. So much of my self-worth is based on how I show up and when I show up. I am ashamed to say that, for a really long time, a lot of my self-worth was wrapped up in my productivity. Illness really disrupts all of those things. All of a sudden you just can’t live how you used to live, and at the same time, you don’t want pity from anyone.
All of it is so intense, and as a society, we’re not kind when it comes to dealing with people who are sick. We very much treat sickness as some sort of aberration of character. We don’t have these conversations in public, so it took me a really long time to wrap my head around the fact that I was sick. It took even longer for me to realize how it was also affecting my friends because when you’re sick, it feels so lonely. You are so lonely inside your own head and inside your own body. It really took me a long time to understand my friends are feeling pain in a completely different way. I can’t tell you why that stretch didn’t break our friendship, but my feeling is that it’s because Ann is such a generous friend to me. That wasn’t true in a lot of my other relationships.
Ann: My experience isn’t one of me being generous. There are a lot of things that can make it difficult to be in a friendship. Chronic illness is one of them, but so is the fact that I’m an emotional idiot who can’t describe my feelings. There are a lot of different kinds of challenges in a friendship. For me, it has often been hard to find the line between “You’ve got this on your own and you need to be private about this for your own reasons,” versus “I want you to know that I’m still here for you and I can see that this is hard for you.” And often the way it feels to me is that my friend is in a little house by themselves and I’m outside. I’m knocking on the window, looking around, and poking around the perimeter, but I’m not gonna come in if you don’t want me to come in. I don’t know that I have always navigated that as well as I could in terms of knowing when to bang down the door and say, “I’m here,” and when to let it breathe a little and just wave from the sidewalk.
Aminatou: What does it mean to be a friend? What does it mean to depend on people? I’m only speaking for myself, but so much of what I’ve struggled with in my chronic illness is always feeling like a burden. Never fun, always a burden. But then Gwendolyn Brooks is literally like, no, we are each other’s burden, which helped me reframe what it means to feel like you can depend on someone. It’s interesting that in romantic relationships, you have vows and people have a shorthand for how they deal with sickness. That’s also possible in friendship. You can say in sickness and in health to each other. If we’re going to say that our friends are a part of our support system and part of what makes us healthy and whole people then it means that we’re going to go through all of this together.
Between the co-option of Shine Theory and the co-option of #SquadGoals, it feels as if capitalism snakes its way into everything and distorts it. How do you keep capitalism from doing that to your friendship?
Ann: Well, capitalism is everywhere. I would love to tell you that we’re really good at sealing off spaces that are completely untouched. But I do think that writing this book in a way where we really attempt to get at nuance and complication is one way of resisting that. Because it’s really hard to sell something if it's like, there’s good and there’s bad and actually, it’s really complicated. And maybe you need to read a full book about this. We can’t just distill it into a slogan. Introducing complication and nuance is a big tool that we have, because obviously the squad-goals conversation is deeper and more complex. Even Taylor Swift has realized that, but that’s not how it's portrayed when it’s sold and packaged. So that’s a big thing that we try to do: complexity.
What do you hope people take from this book and apply to their own lives and friendships?
Aminatou: I don’t have a beautiful answer, but I hope more people start to realize that we all have something to contribute to this conversation about the place of friendship in society. We can push that conversation forward and we can ask for what we want. I also want for people who read this book to look around and to realize that the greatest romances of your life can be your friends, and that that is enough. I really hope that people who read it know and understand that it’s really hard work to be a friend, but it is deeply rewarding work. And that if that is how you spend the rest of your life, then it was a life worth living.
Ann: One of our greatest hopes for this book has always been that it becomes an invitation and an opening to conversations between friends that might have otherwise felt too risky or not important enough to have with each other. I really hope that friends who read this can say, “I don’t agree with anything these women are writing about, but it has sparked something for me in my own friendships.” My highest hope is that the book resonates and allows friends to deepen those relationships and have those conversations that maybe they’ve been avoiding or didn't realize that they needed to have to keep their friendship strong and healthy.
Evette Dionne is a Black feminist culture writer, editor, and scholar. She is the current editor-in-chief of Bitch Media.
Originally Appeared on Glamour